Against Motivation

People often describe me as a very motivated individual. Whether it's writing music or editing term papers, organizing sheet music or setting up rehearsal schedules, numerous people have commented appreciatively on how motivated I must be. And such comments never fail to bring a wry smile to my face.

Because the truth is? I'm really not.

I don't trust motivation. It's fickle, it's scarce, and it's fleeting. I can't count the number of projects I've started in a burst of enthusiasm, brimming over with a determination to sit down and Get This Done that I've subsequently abandoned completely unfinished. (I could try, but I suspect that that project would likewise never get done, and would have to be added to its own list.) Relying on staying motivated is pretty much a sure-fire way to get me to not do anything that can't be taken care of completely in one sitting.

And yet clearly I do, in fact, do things, even quite elaborate things, things that take months or even years of drawn-out work. How do I manage it?

The trick for me is habits. Habits and schedules. Take practicing bassoon. To be effective, I need to do this most days of the week (I take Fridays off), or else technical passages will start to fall out of my muscle memory and the little muscles around my mouth will get out of shape, ruining my ability to produce a rich and even tone for long periods of time. If I relied on motivation, if I had to be in the mood for practicing, pumped up to do it and determined to make progress, I'd practice maybe once every couple of weeks or so. (Practicing is rewarding, but it always takes more effort than not practicing, and I am at heart a very lazy person.)

So I don't wait for motivation. I schedule it. I make practicing into a habit: Not something I have to find/make time for, but something I just do. When I get home from work, I start soaking my reed while I look thru the mail and check my social media notifications, and then I practice for half an hour. (After that I compose until dinner; it's a similar strategy.) It doesn't matter if I really want to or not, it's an automatic, reflexive thing. Oh, I'm home from work, schedule says it's time to practice, so that's what I've gotta do. At this point, it's a more or less thoughtless process, in much the same way any daily routine can quickly slip from conscious thought. I am a practicing automaton.

Your mileage may vary with this, of course. I tend to fall apart when I don't have a schedule — without penciled-in times to practice and compose, I flat-out just don't do those things, no matter how much I enjoy both the process and the results — but I know that some people find a routine that's too consistent and regular to be somewhat stifling. (I also don't mean this as advice to people living with mental health issues that make even “basic” tasks dauntingly difficult; this is not a post about how depressed people just need a schedule and POOF all better!) But for me, this is a strategy that works. I don't need to be motivated, I don't need to be inspried, I just need to know what time it is.

Give me a schedule and time to fill, and I can shift the world.